Tell us about your background and the skills you believe are essential to this role
In Spain, food is a part of our culture; food is central to good living and, socialisation, and family – a philosophy that I firmly believe. My mother was an excellent cook and I had learned to appreciate the preparation of good food (and good wine!) as central to family life. When I am preparing meals for patients and visitors, I have the same passion I would as if cooking for my family. I guess I have always felt comfortable in a kitchen – albeit a larger one now – the only difference to me was that I started back in 1983, I was preparing vegetables under the watchful eye of the assistant catering manager instead of my mother. A kitchen is not place to relax – it is stressful and very busy. Everything runs like clockwork and has to be highly organised; you have to be extremely good at time management, diligent, focussed and calm under pressure – and believe me at lunchtime there is lot of pressure!
Tell us about your typical day
An early shift (breakfast; and lunch) starts at 6.15am whilst the later shift (lunch; afternoon tea and evening meal) starts at 10am. Typically the early shift finishes at 2.30pm. The later shift starts at 10am and finishes at 6.30pm. We have two head chefs working on each shift and take it in turns to decide at the beginning of each shift who will be responsible for the main course and who will take the sweet section. I’m a dessert man – and will always take this option given the choice – I guess I have a sweet tooth!
The chef responsible for the main course makes the porridge and begins to start preparing lunch whilst the other chef will start to cook the hot breakfast; breakfast is served from 7.15 and everything needs to be ready by then. By 9.00am the hot sweet has been prepared and is in the oven and all the cold desserts are prepared; vegetables are cooked ready for lunch and the salad bar is prepared.
The most stressful part of the day is overseeing the conveyor belt. The chef on the main course is responsible for checking each plated patient meal at the end of an ever-moving conveyor belt. It is a system that has been in use since before I started and is gradually being phased out in NHS kitchens. I will honestly say that I am the most passive person, but when concentrating on the task at hand with the conveyor moving so fast – 30 patient meals ( per ward) checked every 2 ½ minutes and stacked in the trolley – means I have to concentrate 100% with no distractions; it is very stressful! I am very lucky to be supported by a fantastic team of kitchen assistants and each one oversees a different aspect of the meal; one person for main; dessert; vegetables; trays and plates.
Around 650 patient meals have to be checked every lunchtime and each one that is stacked on the trolley has to be perfect. As a kitchen, we prepare an additional 300 staff and visitor meals daily and this figure increases in the winter. Breakfast is similar in numbers and the evening meal is less busy with visitor numbers at around 100.
Service starts at 11.30am with the first trolleys leaving the kitchen for the wards at this time. The last trolley leaves the kitchen at 12.50pm. It has to run like clockwork; we cannot afford to get behind. Once the last trolley has left the kitchen it is almost time for our lunch; time for a short break before the cycle begins once more and we begin to prepare the vegetables for the next day.
What are the biggest challenges in your role?
Apart from the pressure of overseeing the conveyor belt – the single biggest challenge – I would say the increase in the number of meals being cooked every day. Our small team is now catering for increased number of patients – over 200 extra patients in the past five years to cater for, but we continue to work well as a team and we strive to do our best.
Tell us about the meals you prepare and how meals have changed over the years
Before any meal is added to the menu, a team of dieticians work closely with us to ensure that every meal coming out of our kitchen is balanced and nutritious. Speech and Language therapists are also responsible for assessing patients’ needs and we offer a range a pureed food and mashed food as and when requested.
We are particularly proud of our soups which are made from fresh ingredients and these prove very popular with patients. Around 60% of our patients are elderly and so we cater to their needs; old time traditional favourites such as shepherd’s pie, cottage pie and Macaroni cheese are simple, yet nutritious and go down well with patients, staff and visitors of all ages. Whilst some of these old time favourites remain on the menu, tastes have definitely changed over the past 30 years, meals that weren’t cooked years ago such as pasta, spaghetti bolognaise and curry are now very popular choices.
How important is teamwork in the kitchen?
Team work is essential in a busy kitchen. It is a complex environment and we all have an important role to play; every single role is of equal worth. We get along so well as a team and definitely couldn’t achieve anything alone. I think a lot of departments could learn a lot about teamwork by spending time in our kitchen. We are like a family; we all pull together and we all help each other.
What gives you the greatest sense of satisfaction in your role?
Patient experience is so important. After all, when you’re in hospital and not feeling well and perhaps feeling a little low, the highlight of your day is mealtime. Patients look forward to their meals and knowing that your meal is coming at a certain time, introduces some routine into what may otherwise be, a very long day. It is vital that we provide tasty, nutritious, quality food and that patients enjoy. Each day we send out menu cards with every meal and patients have the opportunity to provide feedback. The greatest sense of satisfaction has to be when I receive a menu card back saying that the patient has enjoyed their meal; this is what means the most to me.